sex education

Questions Children Ask & How to Answer Them (or, y’know, not)

Sometimes even when I go into a book with low expectations, I still manage to be disappointed. Questions Children Ask & How to Answer Them pulled this feat off with flying colours.

Before I go any further, I have to admit I have not read the whole book – it is possible the sections dealing with religion, divorce, death, and other such things are better than the first section, which deals with sex. Maybe I will give the other sections a go at some point, but I was pretty blown away by how bad the bit on sex was.

To be clear, I went in assuming the discussion on sex was going to be mostly, if not completely, cis- and heteronormative (a.k.a. trans and LGB-erasing). I was not wrong on these counts, but was willing to judge it from within an exclusively cishetero context.

Stoppard has a great attitude about addressing tough topics with children; her basic premise is that it’s important to answer children’s questions in a truthful, but age appropriate, way. She is also careful to explicitly remind readers that children’s questions on these topics generally come from a very innocent place (while also outlining the signs to watch out for that may indicate sexual abuse); children don’t have the baggage we have around topics of sexuality, and if you don’t make it out as something to be embarrassed about, then there is no need for anyone to be embarrassed. With this in mind, the book presents potential answers to childrens’ tough questions, organized into age groups, with the answer for each older age group being more complex than those that come before it.

Stoppard also strongly encourages parents to provide their own spin on the answers (being willing to openly discuss your own feelings about tough topics when you were a child is a great way to build trust and comfort into these difficult conversaiton), and use their own judgment about an individual child’s maturity level and ability to understand the topic at hand. This is all great stuff, and I came out of the introduction feeling optimistic!

And then I got to the question “What is sex?”

I am so disappointed with the answer, y’all. I knew that it was mostly going to be “a man puts his penis into a woman’s vagina”, but it actually managed to be worse than that!

I’ll give you the excerpts that made me lose patience entirely – these are the points at which the author gets down to the mechanics of sex:

For 6-8 year-olds: “During sexual intercourse, a man’s penis gets stiff and he puts it inside his partner’s vagina, which feels nice.”

For 8-11 year-olds: “During sexual intercourse, a man puts his penis inside a woman’s vagina, and they feel good. The feeling becomes more and more exciting until it reaches a climax, when the man’s sperm spurts – or ejaculates – into the woman’s vagina.”

…Are you freaking kidding me? Here we literally have the idea that climax and ultimate end of sex is a man ejaculating. We learn what happens when a man is aroused (his penis gets stiff), but no mention of anything about arousal or climax of the vulva.

I just… Can? We? Fucking? Not?????????

I know that getting into the dynamics of differing levels of arousal is way beyond the scope of a kids’ question about what sex is. I really do. But it also really fucking pisses me off just how completely this is about the cis man and his pleasure.

I am, once again, oh so grateful that my mother talked to me explicitly about vaginal arousal right alongside erections – I was actually taught that a vagina would lubricate itself when it was ready for sex. In retrospect it was the most adorable thing ever – my mom was straight-up about the fact that without this lubrication sex was likely to be more difficult or even painful, and she talked about erections in the same sort of terms, that the penis getting hard is a practical thing, because if it’s soft it’s more difficult to get it to go into a vagina.

Practical, lacking in baggage, and not centering penile pleasure above all else!

This isn’t that difficult, so why can’t we get our shit together on this stuff?

Asex Ed? – Carnival of Aces Submission June 2017

[This post as a part of the Carnival of Aces, a monthly blog carnival centring around topics relating to asexuality. This month’s  carnival is hosted by Writing Ace on the topic of Asexual Education.]

For this topic, I am focusing on one of the specific suggested prompts: “How should asexuality be taught to children? Where and when should asexuality be taught to children?”

I have a lot of thoughts about the ways in which we teach (or don’t teach, as the case often is) children about sexuality. Sexuality really can be much simpler than we make it most of the time, if we manage to look past the strange moral filters and anxieties so many of us carry around these topics.

For instance, lots of parents have a dread of the day their children first ask where babies come from, because that means they need to tell their kid about the s-e-x word now. Except it doesn’t mean that at all, as it turns out!

My favourite book about baby-making for children is  Cory Silverberg’s What Makes a Baby? In the book, you learn that babies are made when you put together sperm with an ovum (some bodies make sperm, and some don’t; some bodies make ova and some don’t), and give the blastocyst this creates somewhere to live (a uterus! Some bodies have ’em, and some don’t!)

Ta-da! Simple as that, and sex doesn’t enter the conversation. I mean, for the record, it’s not that I think we need to avoid taking to kids about sex, it’s just that not all babies are made from people having sex anymore, and honestly, when children innocently ask about where babies come from, they don’t really want to know about what a man and woman do when they fall in love. In some cases, they’re probably more worried about whether their body might start growing a baby inside of it than anything else. It’s ok.

So, when do we talk to kids about sex? This is something we do need to talk to children about implicitly from a very young age – as young as possible really, simply because of the shockingly high rate of childhood sexual abuse. We need to teach children about their bodies and the ways it is and isn’t ok for other people to touch them. But the explicit conversation is less important, really.

And, if it were up to me, that standard birds-and-bees talk would be massively different as well. And yes, it would include asexuality, at least implicitly!

Something along the lines of this:

Sometimes grownups like to touch each other in special ways! [Talk about touching genitals, what genital arousal and orgrasm (generally) look like, various kinds of intercourse etc.]  We usually refer too all of these things as “having sex”. Sometimes people just touch themselves in ways that feel this way, too – we usually call that masturbation, but it’s a part of our sexuality too!

Having sex is normal, and can be really great if all the people involved want to do it, but this kind of touching can also carry some risks [talk about stis, pregnancy, and what acts do and don’t carry those risks. Note that pregnancy is only a risk for certain combinations of genitals etc].

Most people like to have sex because it feels really good to them (and some people have sex for other reasons, like if they want to get pregnant, or to make someone else feel good), but just like not everyone loves chocolate, not everyone likes sex either, and that’s ok! And some people only like certain kinds of sex, and not others, or only like to masturbate, and that’s all ok too.

Sometimes having sex can also make people feel more emotionally close to each other. In fact, lots of people have strong emotional reactions to having sex in different, but some don’t. Sometimes being in love with someone is what makes a person want to have sex with another person, but sometimes people have sex with each other just because they like how each other looks, or because they enjoy spending time together!

Not everyone falls in love or wants to have romantic relationships, but they can still have sex if they want to and if someone else wants to have it with them! And not everyone likes to have sex with anyone ever! All of these things are ok, and only you can decide how or when or who you want to have sex with, or if you even want to have sex ever at all!

If you really wanted to, you could mention that some people only ever want to have sex with people who are of a specific gender (some women only want to have sex with women, and some women only want to have sex with men, while others might want to have sex with people of different genders), but I think that if you manage to talk about sex in a gender-inclusive way and if children actually internalize the idea that it’s ok to want to have sex with people of whatever gender, no matter what gender you happen to be, then it kind of doesn’t matter if they are only attracted to one gender or another?

Anyway, yes, that’s my ideal way of framing what sex is, (with the existence of asexuality built right into the discussion!) not just to kids, but to literally anyone!